April 27th, 2020

Starting Hard Conversations: Writer Edition

by Tasha Seegmiller

One of the things that's surprised me the most as I’ve advanced in this writing journey is how many people change agents, editors, publishing houses. It’s not something that is discussed widely on the internet, but it happens. A LOT.

Why do these changes happen?

Part of the problem is that writers forget they are allowed to have questions, and they will have questions – questions about something related to publishing, something that their agent or editor might know, but for reasons including mental health issues, insecurity about writing, or a desire to not be that client, they have each paused and let the stress fester a little.

It can be a very scary thing to send an email to someone who you respect, but with whom you have some feelings of frustration, whether it be something that you don’t understand as well as you should, feedback that wasn’t provided when you thought it would be, or writerly imposter syndrome in general.

For these kinds of situations (and so many others in my life) I reach into the vault of brilliance provided by Brené Brown – this time from her book Rising Strong.  In it, she states repeatedly about the importance of acknowledging the story we are telling ourselves. Please note that this isn’t the story that is true or the story that is rational – it is the story we are telling ourselves.

For example, I endure depression. I don’t like to say I suffer from it, though sometimes I do. So, the voices that tend to visit me circulate around being enough of whatever the flavor is of the day. I talk to myself as I’m getting ready for the day, greeting those thoughts when I am able to recognize as depression thoughts by their name (our theme song for this meeting is “The Sound of Silence.” The Disturbed version is best for me).

If I am able to tell when I’m in a depression cyclone and when I am having valid concerns, it helps. Then, I choose key moments to share this reality with the professionals I work with.

I do NOT recommend this conversation take place at the beginning of the relationship. I DO think it is something that I think should be shared in close partnerships, and a quality agent or editor relationship should be a close partnership.

5 Key Reminders for Starting the Conversation

With that out of the way, the courage comes in. There are some key things to keep in mind when starting such a conversation:

1. Do NOT write/call when you are on an emotional rollercoaster.

There are going to be times when the initial response to something sends your thoughts and feelings on unpredictable loops and that is not the time to talk.

I have a colleague who has a sticky note on her computer that says “24 hours.” As soon as she has an email/voicemail/hears of a conversation that gets her heart racing, she looks at it and waits. This wisdom works for many situations. Practice it often and even in excess.

2. Always, always, start with a humane greeting.

A sincere inquiry into how things are going, an expression of gratitude for what has been done. Agents and editors work very hard for a lot of people, and you have the opportunity to be part of that. That’s amazing. Express your gratitude often.

3. Lay the foundation for where you are coming from.

Some examples:

  • “One of the things that I was wondering . . .”
  • “I’ve always been the kind of person who . . .”
  • “A question that I have had for a while is . . . “

One of the things to remember with this step is that you can come across as accusatory VERY easily. That is not what you want to do.

This is where Brené Brown comes in. You have to convey the story you are telling yourself. It can be incredibly scary. It can feel terrifying. But honest, true expression wins over and over and over.

4. Present options for resolving the issues you feel need to be addressed.

This can be asking for some particular document that you have heard about but not seen. This can be a request to talk more in-depth in the future. This can even be an estimated timeline to receive feedback.

Some candid advice about this kind of openness: one big course correction every once in a while is necessary but equally necessary is that you, as the author, do everything in your power to make any necessary minor modifications as the journey toward your publication goals continues.

It is not healthy for individuals within the relationship, or for the relationship in general, to lock everything up, let it build, send an email full of courage and vulnerability, and then start over.

5. Recognize you may not get a response that has concrete answers.

There is so much uncertainty within the world of publication – the relationship you have with the people who are interested in helping you meet your goals should not have that uncertainty.

While no one can predict how the world of publishing will continue through 2020 and what it will look like when it emerges, YOU still have the right to know what these people are feeling in regards to your writing. And if you aren’t certain if what you are sharing has the appropriate tone, ask a trusted confidant/friend/spouse to do a read-through for you.

For many writers, these kinds of moments have made them realize that the relationship they have with their agent or editor isn’t what they thought it was. That is a whole other blog post for another time.

But remember, you and your writing support team are working together in a professional partnership. If the relationship you have with your agent/editor is as strong as you’d like it to be, vulnerability and courage will reward you with peace of mind, and that is priceless.

How have you approached tricky conversations with your agents, editors, or critique partners?

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About Tasha

Tasha Seegmiller believes in the magic of love and hope, which she weaves into every story she creates. She is an MFA candidate in the Writing Program at Pacific University and teaches composition courses at Southern Utah University. Tasha married a guy she’s known since she was seven, is the mom of three teens, and co-owner of a soda shack and cotton candy company. She is represented by Annelise Robey of Jane Rotrosen Agency.

18 responses to “Starting Hard Conversations: Writer Edition”

  1. Micky Wolf says:

    Tasha, your post really speaks to my heart--such an important topic. While I am in the process of seeking an agent for my novel, I hope for the kind of meaningful relationship you describe. One that provides a safe environment for all involved to be vulnerable and take responsibility for their own actions and behaviors. You offer great insight for how that might happen! Thanks so much for sharing.

  2. Eldred Bird says:

    Great post, Tasha. Other than a few magazine articles and an anthology, I'm self published, but that doesn't mean I don't have to have these conversations with people. I use a lot of these techniques when dealing with my editors, critique partners, and beta readers...anyone who is involved in the process of getting my work out into the world.

    These are also good principles to apply in every day life communications. Things tend to go a lot smoother when you keep the emotional level down and think before you speak or write. People are much more receptive when you're calm and collected, rather than keyed up and loaded for bear!

  3. ecellenb says:

    Wonderful post, Tasha! I am in complete agreement with Eldred Bird. These are excellent ideas to apply in many situations.

    Merely bringing one's work to critique is an act of courage. I look for the positives and try to remember to mention those comments first. The first time I went to a critique group meeting I was terrified. Thankfully the group I worked with was and still is encouraging.

    I am working with an editor now. This is a new relationship that we both hope will grow. There have been times when I felt like I was being a pest and didn't feel comfortable asking some questions, not wanting to be needy. I discovered that it's important to be patient but ask away when an answer is needed.

    Striking a balance is tricky when you are still getting to now someone, whether it's a personal or business relationship.

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      And Ellen, especially when people are newer writers (which I know you aren't), this is both tenuous and important. People must get an honest opinion of their work if they hope to get better, but there has to be hope and encouragement in there too. It's a tough balance, and wonderful when they find a group that provides all those things!

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      The balance is so tricky and there are many writers who think it's better to sit and fume rather than be a pest. Based on the editors and agents I've talked to, they rarely think a client is being a pest. It's part of the working relationship.

  4. dholcomb1 says:

    I had an example, but because of proprietary reasons, I can't share what I did. But I did it in a very respectful way and had a positive outcome.

    I'm having an issue with a friend who thinks she's a critique partner. I may have to politely remind her I can't do what she needs. I thought I had settled it about a year ago.

    denise

    • Jenny Hansen says:

      Ha! I'm glad you were able to resolve that situation in a positive way, Denise. As for your friend who "thinks she's a critique partner." it sounds like she might need to be pushed further down the timeline for seeing your work...like after it's published! I'm sorry you're going through that. Even though it's frustrating, it is actually a compliment to you for how deeply she is invested in your stories.

      • dholcomb1 says:

        My bigger issue is she wants me to critique her work. Give her all of my wealth of knowledge in the industry. She hasn't taken the time to do the research, know exactly what she needs to do, etc... I can't do her work for her.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      While it is absolutely necessary to start conversations one way, that doesn't mean everything resonates with everyone. Sometimes a firm statement and a hard boundary is better. Wishing you the best of luck with your future conversations!

  5. Jenny Hansen says:

    Tasha, I've always thought that if we knew how little people thought about us, we'd be insulted. Everyone is busy running their own race and they rarely are thinking about ours. I think writers believe those editors and agents spend a lot of time thinking about them and their stories because they are so immersed in their own stories.

    My husband and I had our pre-marital counselor give us some of the best advice EVER prior to getting married: "Give each other an 'out with dignity.' Try to enter every interaction believing that the other person might have acted with the best intentions and give each other the benefit of the doubt." That advice has served us well in our marriage.

    • tashaseegmiller says:

      Oh, that is a good piece of advice. Another I' recently heard was "What if everyone really is doing the best they can?" Sometimes it makes me cringy, but I try to keep that in mind when frustrations rise.

      • Jenny Hansen says:

        Ha! I do think most people are doing the best they can. I had a long-time married person tell me this before marriage (and our relationships with writing professionals is kind of a marriage):

        "Everyone should give 100/100. If you subscribe to 50/50, someone will always be measuring whether 'that was REALLY 50/50.' But if you give 100/100 every day you possibly can, everything will even out. Your 100% on some days might be pitiful, but it is still the best you've got for that day."

  6. Peter Melnick says:

    Thank you for this wonderfully open, smart post. I understand your 24 hour rule in terms of what it is to be triggered - a kind of fight-or-flight response, seemingly to present events but deeply rooted in past trauma. It's a great suggestion. As writers, we have the tools to give articulate voice to whatever we're feeling - enough rope to hang ourselves but good! I'm pretty good at recognizing when I'm in that slightly altered state. I'm also familiar with the thought, "I should sit on what I'm feeling, but... Oh hell with it, I've gotta say something." That impulse rarely works out well.

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